Top 40 open source products for business and IT pros

To bring you this year’s 40 top open source products — our 2009 Bossie winners — we pulled a couple of fast ones. Our first inspired dodge was to come up with the InfoWorld Open Source Hall of Fame. There’s a certain number of obviously great open source solutions (we settled on 36) that deserve a hall of fame, and though our annual Bossies selection regularly passed over most of these because of their sheer obviousness, a few inevitably complicated the process. Erecting the hall of fame allowed us to honor these inconvenient legends — the Linuxes, BSDs, Sendmails, and Snorts — once and for all.

Our second shortcut was to omit desktop productivity tools and focus strictly on enterprise software, application development tools, networking and network management software, and platforms and middleware. We covered some of the top desktop productivity tools in “The best free open source software for Windows” — including Linux standards such as and Firefox — but there’s so much more to talk about. Once you start down this road, you have to walk a long way.

Desktop OSS, brieflyOK, we’ll just mention a few. We’d have to pick GIMP, the open source Photoshop alternative, and Blender, a formerly commercial 3-D graphics editor that was purchased by the community and made freely available through the GPL. That gets a big thumbs-up. There’s also Inkscape, the vector graphics illustration program, and ImageMagick, a very cool scriptable tool used for mass graphics manipulation. On the audio/video front, no doubt the excellent Audacity audio editor and the VLC media player take a prize. VLC is also a very good streaming video server that supports both unicast and multicast.

And that’s just graphics and multimedia. We’d also have to explore all the open source utilities available, like the Handbrake DVD ripper and the Growl notification system, and whether to include software like LinuxMCE, a home automation controller (think lights, cameras, thermostats, media centers), or Musix, a Debian-based distribution that’s chock-full of top-notch software for musical composers and performers. Not to mention all of the open source browsers, and maybe even variants of Should Google Chrome win a Bossie?

(Should we include games too? Do you remember that old arcade game called Battlezone with the wire frame tanks? BZFlag is like Battlezone for the 21st century. Highly recommended.)

We’re going to dodge all of these questions, at least for now, and stick with InfoWorld’s traditional sweet spots of serious business software and serious tools for IT professionals. Thus, the 40 Bossie winners we set here before you include the best free (and sometimes hybrid) open source we know for building and running Web, mobile, and even cloud-based data processing applications; managing and securing business networks; migrating and integrating enterprise data; building and integrating Web services; and meeting business needs for salesforce automation, customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, reporting and BI, and business process management.

Application development

The iPhone, Android, Palm webOS, BlackBerry, and their app stores have made mobile application development all the rage in the past year, and 2009 marks the first year we award Bossies in that arena — to the PhoneGap development framework and the WebKit browser engine.

The PhoneGap project combines a focus on pure JavaScript and HTML with the ability to tap native device features such as the iPhone’s accelerometer and geolocation data. Given tools such as PhoneGap, and the fact that so many mobile platforms have caught WebKit fever, standard Web technologies may become more important to mobile development than native SDKs.

Building applications for large-scale, distributed data processing isn’t a new thing, but it’s becoming more common as organizations try to come to grips with huge volumes of intelligence-packed data (think Facebook’s Web logs, for example) and Amazon EC2 and other clouds make it more practical and affordable to do so.

Hadoop and Hive are tools for processing data collections in the terabyte and petabyte range. Hadoop provides a framework that makes it relatively simple to unleash parallel algorithms on large data sets. Hive, which is erected atop Hadoop, fools the underlying distributed file system into seeing tables (rather than stream-accessed files) and lets users execute SQL-like queries against those tables.

Eclipse is a fine IDE in its own right, and some of us have used it repeatedly to build and debug Java applications. But this year Eclipse wins a Bossie for its Web Services Tools plug-in, particularly the Web Services Explorer, which is invaluable in debugging Web services applications. Point the Explorer at a service’s WSDL, and it will enumerate all the services available at that endpoint. Launch a request at the service; the Explorer captures the response, and displays it either in raw or structured form.

The NetBeans IDE takes our Bossie, thanks to what may be its best release ever. While most free IDEs have stood still or been adding non-core features, NetBeans 6.7 hewed closely to its mission of providing developers with an IDE that works fast and well with multiple languages. This release boosts support for Ruby and JRuby, significantly advances its Groovy capabilities, expands its C/C++ capabilities, and enables unit testing in PHP. It has also expanded project-level tools with built-in support for Maven and seamless integration with projects hosted at, including SCM and Jira interoperability.

Another repeat winner is JBoss Drools, the free open source rival to business rule management systems from IBM/ILOG, Fair Isaac, Oracle, Pega Systems, and others. The great irony behind the “business logic” of business applications is that it is impossible for business people to understand. Rulebase engines such as Drools are designed to change that, presenting business users with an English-like decision language and views into the rules (spreadsheets, flowcharts, etc.) that they can readily understand.

Bossies also go to jQuery, the great JavaScript library; Mono, the Novell-backed open source implementation of Microsoft’s .NET Framework; and BrowserShots, a Web site and distributed network of computers that serves up screen images of Web pages on demand. An invaluable resource for Web designers, BrowserShots can show you what your page looks like in dozens of different browsers on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, and BSD.

Finally, a Bossie also to OpenStreetMap, an open source version of popular mapping services like Google Maps and MapQuest. OpenStreetMap holds mapping parties for areas where they don’t have good mapping data. Because all the geolocation data comes from volunteers, it can be shared and reused in ways that Google and other commercial mappers don’t allow. It’s an ambitious and well organized project that you don’t have to be a developer to help out.

Platforms and middleware

There’s a big new buzzword in town, so service-oriented architecture and enterprise integration aren’t on as many tongues these days. But even if obscured by clouds, application and data integration needs never go away, and these are needs that the open source world is especially well equipped to meet. Two leading lights of open source SOA are MuleSource and WSO2. The Mule ESB takes our prize for the finest enterprise service bus in the open source pantheon, while WSO2 receives a Bossie for its Carbon framework, the basis of a completely componentized SOA platform.

We award a pair of data integration solutions as well. Talend Open Studio has everything one would look for in a traditional enterprise data integration platform: batch delivery, transforms, ETL (extract, transform, and load), data governance, and a strong set of connectivity adapters. At the same time it keeps pace with important trends with such features as change data capture, metadata support, federated views, and SOA-based access to data services.

Jitterbit is a lighter-weight and extensible point solution that is just the ticket for one-off data migration projects. Able to shortcut such projects by weeks, Jitterbit makes simple work of configuring source and target specifications with its form-based wizards. It may be the most uncomplicated tool available to get data from one place to another.

With nearly 4 percent of the world’s Web sites and growing, the Nginx Web server argues that lighter, smaller, and faster — than Apache — is better, and there are several reasons to agree. Lighter, smaller, faster, and easier is the formula behind Turnkey Linux, which preconfigures popular server stacks (LAMP, Tomcat, Ruby) and applications (Drupal, Joomla, WordPress) with a core configuration of Ubuntu to produce ready-to-run software appliances that can be easily installed on bare metal or in a virtual machine.

Bossies also go to three virtualization solutions. You may know Xen as the hypervisor in the free (as in beer) Citrix XenServer and enterprise Linux distributions, or OpenVZ as the kernel of Virtuozzo, the not-free (as in beer or speech) container-based virtualization solution from Parallels. Both can be used and useful without the elaborate management consoles these vendors provide with the commercial products.

The third virtualization tool is VirtualBox, backed by Sun Microsystems. It too is available in both the open source and an enterprise edition. The free version lacks a few things in the commercial product, the worst omission being USB support. Nevertheless, VirtualBox is probably the best way to test out a Linux distribution before installing it, certainly if you want to install software on that distribution beyond what you’ll find on a LiveCD version. In addition, if you want to develop and test a multi-machine client-server system, you can run multiple VMs on a single system and wire them all together through VirtualBox’s virtual LAN.

Reporting and BI

Open source BI stacks offer exciting, lower-cost alternatives to the traditional commercial juggernauts. Java-based projects Pentaho BI Suite and Jaspersoft Business Intelligence Suite dominate the open source playing field, and while their basic reporting capabilities are free, getting advanced functionality out of either stack will require a commercial license.

Other open source BI solutions, notably the well-rounded SpagoBI toolset and Actuate’s scalable, RIA-enabled BIRT-based tools, show solid underpinnings but fall short of Jaspersoft’s and Pentaho’s more complete BI stacks.

Both Pentaho and Jaspersoft have streamlined their design tools, helping to bring more minds to the data mining mix with minimal training. Pentaho has even added an Adobe Flash-based dashboard UI that breaks the bonds of static reports, while Jaspersoft has incorporated in-memory analysis for ad hoc queries, performed locally in the browser or pushed back to the server when the client device has resources.

For multidimensional analysis, OLAP, workflow, and ETL, Pentaho’s well-guided interfaces and robust engine make it the best choice. Jasper, however, delivers a better overall reporting experience and ready customization. Considering the two are not mutually exclusive in their deployment, you might find it beneficial to look at both for their respective specialties.

That said, Pentaho’s dashboards and wizards for report creation are nothing to sneeze at, although some of the more enterprise-worthy features like cluster and repository management require a paid subscription. By the same token, Jaspersoft’s professional edition provides solid data mining with drag-and-drop tailoring of analytics.

To be considered beyond departmental-use cases, both Pentaho and Jaspersoft must continue to improve their handling of larger data sets, beef up overall security, and incorporate performance management features: financial/operational performance metrics that help companies align their strategic goals and business planning across their organizations.

Nonetheless, plenty of bells and whistles such as workflow and alerts help round out both of these stellar offerings.


SugarCRM takes the Bossie for best open source customer relationship management platform. With tools for salesforce automation (leads, pipeline forecasting, and account management), e-marketing, and online lead capture, as well as customer support and automated service handling, Sugar has the most comprehensive feature set among open source competitors.

The sizable user community behind Sugar brings with it a wealth of connectors to integral business systems and plug-in options to extend functionality. Another big plus: SugarCRM’s well-designed user interface and uncomplicated setup and customization help speed up deployments and make new users productive quickly.

SugarCRM’s advanced functions — sales forecasting, order management, report customization, automated alerts, customer self-service portal — are available only in professional and enterprise editions, as are interfaces that make the application accessible to wireless devices and Microsoft Office. The new SugarCRM 5.5 beta streamlines interfaces for mobile users and adds a collaborative tool. SugarCRM also supports REST Web services, making it easier to integrate the CRM application with legacy systems.

Sugar’s e-mail marketing and campaign management tools are challenged by no other open source competitor. Budgeting and response tracking support tactical marketing efforts versus generic carpet-bombing campaigns. And automatic lead routing (also available via the customer portal) employs predefinable forms that help lock in potential leads.

SugarCRM does have open source rivals. The .Net-centric SplendidCRM shares many of the features in SugarCRM 5.2 and does a good job with mobile access. As with SugarCRM, advanced features such as full Outlook integration, the new workflow engine, and reporting require a professional or enterprise license. Concursive continues to carve out a niche market with its combination of basic CRM functionality and social networking, but falls short of a complete CRM solution.

Enterprise resource planning

Open source ERP has come a long way in a short time, and may in fact be the next big growth area for open source in the coming year. Because ERP is anything but one size fits all, specialized verticals will no doubt begin to take root.

The two projects leading the way in open source ERP are Compiere and Openbravo, and both earn a Bossie from us this year. Although forked from the same code base, both companies have moved in slightly different directions.

Along with these co-winners, OpenERP and OFBiz deserve mention. Tiny’s OpenERP (formerly TinyERP) has significantly improved its strength and scope — even wading into BI and workflow. The product could still use more enterprise features, such as an asset management system, but this Belgian company is on the move.

Apache OFBiz is also one to watch. Its rich e-commerce functionality, strong services layer, and handy MVC (model-view-controller) framework unfortunately remain overshadowed by usability issues and installation complexity. Themed interfaces are being introduced to improve the UI, and Derby — OFBiz’s embedded database for transaction processing — is incorporating examples that should help draw interest. OFBiz will start to look much more attractive as these wrinkles get smoothed out.

Openbravo impresses with a well-developed POS (point-of-sale) solution, procurement and warehouse management tools, financial and accounting features, and production logistics for shop floor oversight. Further, Openbravo’s plug-in architecture offers the same sort of extensive modularity found in SugarCRM and traditional commercial applications from the likes of SAP and Oracle. That means your developers can extend system functionality without worrying about stepping on core functionality. And the entire Openbravo system is supported by a healthy set of alerts, role-based user provisioning and access control, and a good Web-based UI.

Most of Openbravo’s functionality is available in the free community edition, while more Compiere features — including a Web UI, PDF reports, and warehouse and manufacturing management capabilities — are locked away in paid editions. You will need Openbravo’s enterprise edition to get OLAP functionality and clustering — crucial for any large enterprise deployment.

Compiere’s core features are also top-notch. The free community edition has the basics for materials and order management as well as purchasing, finance, and business performance management. As noted above, warehouse and manufacturing management are absent, but if those are not a requirement for your business, you’ll find the HR/payroll features, reporting, and Java client in Compiere’s community edition to be up to the task.

Although both Compiere and Openbravo offer some CRM-style features, you won’t mistake them for full-blown solutions. Features such as forecasting, pipeline workflow, mobile access, and partner relationship management are light-years behind SugarCRM and commercial offerings such as NetSuite. But they cover the basics of sales management vis-à-vis master data overlap with ERP.

Business process management

When it comes to automating business tasks, the only open source solution capable of addressing the full matrix of enterprise requirements is Intalio BPM. It’s simply the most comprehensive open source BPMS available.

The remaining choices are rather narrowly focused. Active Endpoints makes its ActiveBPEL Engine available free under the GPL, but requires you to pay up for the companion orchestration toolkit, the ActiveVOS Designer. (Intalio includes its modeler, BPEL server, and workflow in the free community edition.) Colosa ProcessMaker and uEngine have well-developed human workflow support, but they lack the heavy-duty, system-to-system integration capabilities of Intalio.

Intalio has been criticized regarding its open source claims, most likely because the company does not provide source code on its Web site (where binaries of the free community edition can be downloaded). However, Intalio’s enterprise edition customers do get full access to source code, and the source code of community edition components — which fall under Apache and Eclipse licenses — are obtainable from their community-based repositories.

Intalio’s Eclipse-based graphical modeler simplifies process design while the Intalio Server provides an extensible plug-in environment to connect most enterprise infrastructures. The Tempo framework (part of the server) adds human workflow and connectors to a variety of technologies including BPEL, Web services, REST, and XForms, while Intalio’s underlying ecosystem stretches from lifecycle management tools to deployment monitoring. A new perk comes by way of the OpenPMF 2.0 framework, which is now included for application security. Your developers don’t need to be security experts to configure security properly.

Intalio has been working to plug CRM functionality into the mix, but so far those capabilities remain basic. Another nit: Apache Geronimo is the only application server supported in the community edition.

However, new beta features reflect enterprise needs, including a business rules engine, Ajax-driven forms for easier editing, and a more streamlined deployment interface. The full enterprise edition also includes BAM (business activity monitoring), a portal interface, ECM (enterprise content management) based on Alfresco, fail-over clustering, and support for application servers beyond Apache Geronimo.

Free vs. free

Clearly, as open source marches into the enterprise the term “open source” no longer equates with “free of charge.” Free open source makes good sense if the abbreviated features or limited number of seats in community versions serve your business needs. Otherwise costly consulting and customization charges may begin to outpace savings on commercial licensing.

Although many companies will find the free versions of open source applications sufficiently appointed for small workgroups and department level projects, purchasing a license and support package will still frequently reap a better deal, feature by feature, than you’ll find in closed commercial offerings.

InfoWorld Test Center contributing editors Andrew Binstock, Brian Chee, Curtis Franklin Jr., Rick Grehan, Martin Heller, Neil McAllister, James Owen, Paul Venezia, and Peter Wayner contributed to this article.

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